Family Card - Person Sheet
Family Card - Person Sheet
NameProfessor Ernst Alfred CASSIRER
Birth28 Jul 1874, Breslau, Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland)
Death13 Apr 1945, New York
BurialCedar Park Beth-El Cemetery, Westwood, New Jersey, USA
OccupationProfessor Of Philosophy
FatherEduard CASSIRER (1843-1916)
MotherEugenie (Jenny) CASSIRER (1848-1904)
Birth1883, Vienna?582
Death5 Jan 1961, New York, NY, USA582,110
FatherOtto BONDY (1844-1928)
MotherJulie CASSIRER (1860-1914)
Marriage1902, Vienna588
ChildrenHeinrich Walter (Heinz) (1903-1979)
 Georg Eugen (1904-1958)
 Anna (Anne) Elizabeth (1908-1998)
Notes for Professor Ernst Alfred CASSIRER
Famous German philosopher.

See also Notes: Misc Notes 2 - account by Peter Cassirer of his Uncle’s life
WD Falk Account

See also, for an excellent biography, Donald Phillip Verne (ed), Symbol, Myth and Culture - Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1979, pp. 16-23.

In early October 2010 the Research and Science Foundation started its work in Hamburg. On a request from the CDU, Government and political groups, the Senate has named the foundation "Hamburgische Stiftung zu Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung" - that is, the "Ernst Cassirer Foundation for Scientific Research - Hamburg”.

The aim of the Foundation is to promote outstanding research at the universities of Hamburg in cooperation with partners outside the university.

ERNST CASSIRER1051 Ernst Alfred Cassirer, philosopher, educator, writer, and prominent member of the neo-Kantian movement, was born on July 28, 1874, in Breslau, Silesia, the fourth child of the wealthy Jewish tradesman Eduard Cassirer and his wife Eugenie, nee Cassirer.

In October 1880 Cassirer entered the Johannes-Gymnasium in Breslau and was graduated in the spring of 1892 with highest honors. In the fall he entered university. For the next seven years, in the time-honored German tradition, Cassirer attended several universities which had eminent professors within his various fields of study. At Berlin and Leipzig he studied jurisprudence and at Heidelberg, Berlin, and Munich, German philosophy and literature. In the summer of 1894, while taking Georg Simmel's course on Kant at Berlin, Cassirer was introduced to the work of Hermann Cohen, leader of the Marburg School of neo-Kantianism. In 1896 Cassirer went to Marburg to study philosophy under Cohen and also mathematics. On July 14, 1899 Cassirer successfully defended his inaugural dissertation, "Descartes' Critique of Mathematical and Natural Scientific Knowledge," at the University of Marburg.
Upon receiving his doctorate, Cassirer returned to live with his parents, who, in the meantime, had moved to Berlin. In 1901 while attending the wedding of a close relative in the same city, Cassirer met his cousin Toni, daughter of Otto Bondy and his wife Julie, nee Cassirer, from Vienna. They were married a year later in Vienna. After a short residence in Munich, Cassirer, his wife, and the first of their three children moved to Berlin.
Between October 1903 and October 1919 Cassirer lived in Berlin and wrote several of his major works. His mentor, Hermann Cohen, urged him to embark upon an academic career, but Cassirer exhibited little desire to live in a small university town in an atmosphere of gossip and latent anti-Semitism. He preferred the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin, where most of his and his wife's relatives lived and where he had use of the excellent state and university libraries.
In Imperial Germany, university appointments were rarely given to Jews. In 1906, however, Cassirer was able to obtain the position ofPrivatdozent at the University of Berlin, a post he held for the next thirteen years. Only in the more liberal Weimar Republic did Cassirer receive a professorship. In October 1919 he assumed the chair of philosophy at the newly founded University of Hamburg. In 1930 he was elected rector of the university.
After his resignation from the University of Hamburg in May 1933, Cassirer accepted a position at Oxford University, where he lectured for two years. In 1935 he was offered and accepted a professorship at the University of Goeteborg. Cassirer's six years in Sweden represented a very productive period in his life. He mastered the Swedish language and obtained Swedish citizenship. In the summer of 1941 Cassirer accepted an invitation (by Charles Hendel, then chairman of the department of philosophy) to come to Yale University as a visiting professor. Cassirer's original intention was to remain in the U.S. for two years and then return to Sweden, but the United States's entry into World War II altered his plans. At the end of two years he was unable to return to Sweden and willingly agreed to prolong his contract with Yale University for another year. During this period Cassirer received an invitation to teach at Columbia University, and in the summer of 1944 he left New Haven for New York, where he died on April 13, 1945.

For further biographical information, see:
1) Ernst Cassirer, "Lebenslauf," followingDescartes' Kritik der mathematischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis, Universitaet Marburg, 1899, p. 103 [Yale University Library, German Philosophical Tracts, vol. 4];
2) Toni Cassirer,Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981;
3) Walter Eggers and Sigrid Meyer,Ernst Cassirer: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland Press, 1988; 4) Dimitry Gawronsky, "Ernst Cassirer: His Life and Work" inThe Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, ed. by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Evanston, Illinois: The Library of Living Philosophers, Inc., 1949, pp. 1-37;
4) David R. Lipton, Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 1914-33, University of Toronto Press, 1978; and 5) Donald Phillip Verene, ed.,Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

by T. Michael Womack
New Haven, Connecticut
February 2000
Last Updated: January 2001

See also Ernst Cassirer Papers Yale. rtf - Reports Folder - for Yale University Rare Archival Summary of papers held and background to them.

See also University of Hamburg

Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945)1052
German philosopher and historian of ideas, often typed as one of the leading exponents of neo-Kantian thought in the 20th century. Cassirer's major works include The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-29). Cassirer saw that human beings were above all a symbolizing animals. The whole range of our achievements, science, religion, arts, history, political thought, religion, language - they all are unique parts of our evolutionary process and help us to understand our experience and the world.

"Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality." (An Essay on Man, 1944)

Ernst Cassirer was born in Breslau Germany (today Wroclaw, Poland) into a prominent Jewish family. His father, Eduard Cassirer, was a merchant. In 1892 Cassirer entered the University of Berlin, where he studied law. He soon changed to literature and philosophy, pursuing further studies in history, languages, and the sciences at the Universities of Leipzig, Heidelberg, and Munich. In Berlin he was introduced to the work of Herman Cohen and became in 1896 one of his students at the University of Marburg.

The Marburg school was at that time known as an important advocate of neo-Kantian though. In Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant claimed that the fundamental concepts and categories by means of which we organize experience - among them space and time - are universal and immutable. They determine the way we experience the world. Cassirer accepted the idea of categories but saw that they are open to constant development. The great symbol systems from science to mythology are not modeled on reality but model it. "Like all the other symbolic forms art is not the mere reproduction of a ready-made, given reality. It is one of the ways leading to an objective view of things and of human life. It is not an imitation but a discovery of reality," Cassirer wrote in Essay on Man. The conceptual framework, "symbolic universe", that enables us to experience the world the way we do became Cassirer main object of study. Other influential thinkers for him were Hegel, Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe, Leibniz, and Vico.

Cassirer's doctoral dissertation on Descartes' theory of knowledge was accepted in 1899. It appeared with a critique of Leibniz in 1902. Next year Cassirer married his distant cousin, Toni Bondies; they had three children. The first two volumes of Das Erkenntnisproblem appeared in 1906 and 1907. He also worked with an edition of Kant's collected works, published by his cousin Bruno Cassirer. The last opus in the series was Cassirer's Immanuel Kants Leben und Lehre, which appeared in 1918.

Cassirer's position as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin was secured in 1906. Behind the slow start of his university career was more or less veiled anti-Semitism. His international reputation grew steadily and in 1914 Das Erkenntnisproblem won the Kuno Fischer Gold Medal from the Heidelberg Academy. After World War I Cassirer left Berlin when he was offered a position as full professor at the newly founded University of Hamburg. Moreover, there he had all the first class resources of The Warburg Library at his disposal. In Hamburg he met among others the art historian Erwin Panofsky, whose essay 'Idea: Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunsttheorie' (1924) was inspired by Cassirer’s lecture on Platon. Cassirer's study Einstein’s Theory of Relativity appeared in 1921. It contained a preface from Einstein himself.

The years in Hamburg marked Cassirer's shift from the great theories of science and philosophy to the world of art, language, myth, and culture. The first volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms was published in 1923. His principal philosopical concept, symbolic form, Cassirer derived from Heinrich Hertz's conception of the symbol in the art of the Hegelian aesthetician, Friedrich Theodor Vischer. The second volume, Language and Myth, followed two years later, and the third in 1929. At Davos in the spring of 1929 he gave lectures before an invited international audience and had a debate with Martin Heidegger, a charismatic younger philosopher. The place had also been the scene of Thomas Mann's novel Magic Mountain (1924), which depicted a fight between liberal and conservative values, enlightened civilized world and nonrational beliefs. The debate marked the clash of two worlds of philosophy - the rich humanistic tradition represented by Cassirer and antihistorical, modern brand of phenomenology. Heidegger's major work, Sein und Zeit (1927), had just appeared; ahead lay his decision to join the the Nazi Party. Cassirer had been warned of Heidegger's rejection of all social conventions, whereas Cassirer's gentlemanlike behavior was his weapon against the attacks of the new star in philosophy. Later Heidegger complained that this "prevented the problems from being given the necessary sharpness of formulation". Cassirer himself said, that the antirational philosophy "renounces its own fundamental theoretical and ethical ideals. It can be used, then, as a pliable instrument in the hands of political leaders."

In spite of the political climate Cassirer was elected Rector of the University of Hamburg in 1929 - the first Jew to gain such position in German universities. Cassirer's speech in which he defended republicanism triggered protests and polemics. The republican parliamentary constitution was not a stranger in the history of German thought, he argued, but "it grew from its own soil and was nurtured by its most genuinely own forces, by the forces of idealist philosophy." He spent some time in Paris in 1931 and wrote there The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932). After Hitler was elected chancellor of German in 1933, a law was passed which would make it impossible for Jews to held official positions. Before being dismissed from the university Cassirer moved to England. He spent two years at Oxford, and then accepted a professorship at the University of Göteborg in Sweden. Due to his almost photographical memory Cassirer learned Swedish as quickly as he had learned English. During this period he wrote a work on Descartes’ influence on the Swedish queen Christine and her conversion to Catholicism. In 1935 Ernst and Toni Cassirer became Swedish citizens. After the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation of France, the Cassirers left Sweden for the United States.

Cassirer was a visiting professor at Yale University for a year, and worked then as a teacher at the Columbia University and the University of California in Los Angeles. Carrirer died on April 13, 1945 of a heart attack on the street outside of Columbia University.

"My question: Is it possible that the homogeneous process of abstraction and symbolic self-definition that Cassirer chronicled as part of the advance of Western civilization was itself only a contingent, and possibly localized, historical phenomenon? From the time of the first advances of the Greeks and the in bumps, jolts, and reversals, the inertial progress finally arrives at out won century - great advances in science, technology, and power, but now an international barbarism. Somewhere, we seem to have missed a fundamental dimension of human nature and thought." (Seymour W. Itzkoff in Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man, 1971)

In Language and Form Cassirer wrote that language and myth began as one, originally standing "in an indissoluble correlation with one another, from which they both emerge but gradually as independent elements..." Language also bears within self, from its very beginning, the power of logic. In the earliest phases language clings to the concrete phenomenon, exemplified among others by the Arabic use of between five to six thousand terms to describe a camel. Myth develops into art and the development of written language leads eventually toward mathematics and science, although in poetry language still has its original power. "The greatest lyric poets, for instance Hölderlin or Keats, are men in whom the mythic power of insight breaks forth again in its full intensity and objectifying power."

From the beginning of his career Cassirer was interested in both natural sciences and humanities - literature, history and the arts. Cassirer considered all forms of intellectual activity creative. As a symbol-creating animal human being is the product of a new mutation in life. Science, language, art, religion, mythology - they all are man-made worlds, expressing the creativity of spirit, or mind, itself. In this capacity they help us to articulate our experience and our knowledge. Symbolic forms have great creative powers but they could also be destructive. Aware of full horrors of Nazism Cassirer saw that whole nations could fell victims of political myths. When intellectual, ethical and artistic forces lose their strength, mythical thought start to emerge and pervade the whole of man's cultural and social life.

In the United States Cassirer wrote An Essay on Man (1944) and The Myth of the State, which appeared posthumously in 1946. His work influenced especially Wilbur Marshall Urban (Language and Reality, 1939) and Susan Langer's aesthetic thought in her Feeling and Form (1953). Langer argued that "art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling" and this is why it can never be expressed discursively in words what a work of art communicates. In England, where philosophers were interested in such questions as the distinction between truth and falsity, Cassirer did not have many followers - he was too much product of the classic tradition of German philosophical idealism. In the 1960s John Passmore considered this (A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 1966) a serious drawback and a justification for denying that Cassirer is a 'philosopher', as the world was then commonly understood by British philosophers. Passmore had also reservations about Cassirer as a historian. "His bold and imaginative analyses of human culture have, indeed, the same sort of suggestiveness as Toynbee's The Study of History, and comparable limitations." After a relative mild interest in his thoughts, Cassirer started to attract again attention in the 1990s. The International Ernst Cassirer Society was founded in 1993. However, many of Cassirer's central works wait for their translation into English.

For further reading: The Philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, ed. by Paul Schlipp (1949); Symbol and Reality by Carl H. Hamburg (1956); Ernst Cassirer: Scientific Knowledge and the Concept of Man by Seymor W. Itzkoff (1971): Ernst Cassirer: The Dilemma of a Liberal Intellectual in Germany, 1914-1933 by David R. Lipton (1978); Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer, 1935-1945, ed. by Donald Phillip Verene (1979); Mein Leben mit Ernst Cassirer by Toni Cassirer (1981); Ernst Cassirer: A "Repetition" of Modernity by S. G. Lofts (2000) - For further information: - The International Ernst Cassirer Society -

For further reading:

* Descartes, Kritik der Matematischen und Naturwissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis, (1899, dissertation)
* Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen, 1902
* Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 3 vols., 1906-1920
* Der Substanzbegriff und der Funktionsbegriff, 1910 - Substance and Function, and Einstein's Theory of Relativity
* Freiheit und form. Studien zur deutschen Geistesgeschichte, 1916
* Immanuel Kant's Leben und Lehre, 1918 - Kant's Life and Thought
* Zur Einstein'schen Relativitätstheorie. Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtung, 1921 - Einstein's Theory of Relativity
* Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, 3 vols., 1923-1929 - Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. I: Language; Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. II: Mythical Thought; Philosophy of the Symbolic Form, vol. III: The Phenomenology of Knowledge
* Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie dr Renaissance, 1927 - Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy
* Die Platonische Renaisance in England und die Schule von Cambridge, 1932 -
* Philosphie der Aufklärung, 1932 - Philosophy of the Enlightenment
* Deternimismus and Indeterminismus in der modernen Physik, 1936 - Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics
* Descartes, Lehre, Persönlichkeit, Wirkung, 1939
* Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften, 1942 - The Logic of the Humanites
* An Essay on Man, 1944
* Myth of the State, 1946
* Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, 1970
* Idee und Gestalt, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist, 1971
* Symbol, Myth, and Culture, 1979
* Symbol, Technik, Sprache, 1985
* The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. IV: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms, 1996 (edited by J. M. Krois and D. P. Verene)
Misc Note 2 notes for Professor Ernst Alfred CASSIRER
Source: Peter Cassirer

In the series on the great figures in the history of Göteborgs Högskola I have been asked to speak about my grandfather Ernst Cassirer who held a position as professor of philosophy here in the years 1935 to 1941. I am going to do this entirely in my capacity as a grandson, not as a philosopher. I am myself a docent of nordic languages since 1970 and not at all an expert on the writings of my grandfather, but it is altogether thanks to him that I am standing here, because I would most certainly have been murdered in some extermination camp if Ernst Cassirer had not come to Göteborg.

Not only do I know quite little about my grandfather's philosophy, I don't know very much about him even in his capacity as grandfather. I can't remember having met him until 1938, as my parents and I came to Sweden, but during the three years we were in Göteborg at the same time, i.e. until 1941 when he went to the USA, I must have seen him quite often. All so much the better my grandmother Toni Cassirer wrote a biography over her life with my grandfather which is not only very well written but actually at parts really thrilling, in a clear and perspicuous German. Also several philosophical books have been published lately that discuss Ernst Cassirer's philosophy.

In the history of philosophy Ernst Cassirer is known for his studies on epistemology and Kant; his best known work is Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen, which in its entirety has been reprinted in German for the second time after the war this year (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft in Darmstadt). His treatment of the symbolic forms of language, art and myth were rather acknowledged and have become so again today.

The foundation of his idea of man as homo symbolicon was laid during WW I. My grandmother tells how Ernst Cassirer went to his work at the Kriegspresseamt every morning to translate war reports from French newspapers in order to mislead the German people about the war results. On the overcrowded streetcar he read his philosophical books, totally unaware of the noise, the bad air and the weak light. At that time my grandfather was a 42 years old "Privatdozent" in Berlin. He thus was born 1874, in Breslau, at the time a German part of Silesia, today Wroclav in Poland. In Breslau two Cassirer owned factories could provide for him so that he could study without any economic troubles. He married his cousin Toni Bondy from Vienna. His own parents also were cousins and the many intermarriages in the family perhaps can explain the many peculiar and outstanding personalities in the family. In Germany two of Ernst Cassirer's cousins are still more well-known than he himself: Bruno Cassirer, the publisher, and Paul Cassirer, the art dealer who introduced the impressionists in Germany. In the family was also a neurologist Richard Cassirer, well-known for his thesis on multi-sclerosis, a conductor Fritz Cassirer and Kurt Goldstein, who is still well known in mo dern neurology. Of course the many intermarriages had a darker side which resulted in exceptionally many suicides. Grandfather, though, only suffered from an easy melancholy in the mornings, tells my grandmother, and he usually was in a sunny and happy mood.

Ernst Cassirer began to study law - his father needed a solicitor for the business, but he very soon changed to Germanistik, and also later, as he had become a philosopher still devoted himself to philosophy of language and the great German poets, above all Goethe, who took a special room in his heart. His father Eduard often complained that his most talented son did not engage himself in the business. It would have been much better if Ernst had taken care of the factory, he used to say, and that the dull Richard had become a scholar.

Ernst Cassirer was fascinated by Kant and went to the well-known Kant specialist Hermann Cohen in Marburg and rather soon he became Cohen's most prominent student in a philosophical direction that was called New-Kantianism. The fact that Cohen was Jewish was to become very important in Ernst Cassirer's carrier, since he already at that time was considered to be a representative of a "Jewish philosophy that was alien to the German Volksseele".

Cassirer wrote his dissertation on Descartes and he included the text of the dissertation in his next work, Leibniz' System in seinen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen (1902), for which he received a prize in a contest announced by Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften. Already in this first major work Cassirer showed an ability to put complexes of problems in their historical as well as systematical contexts, a trait that became still more developed in his later publications.

Upon Cohen's strong wish Cassirer applied for positions as Universitätsdozent at several universities: in Berlin, Strassbourg and in Göttingen, but as a representative for "Jewish New-Kantianism" he was not accepted anywhere. There can be little doubt that anti Semitism was a major reason for these setbacks, even if this was still not said publicly. On the other side, there was no need for that; anti Semitism was a normal and predictable ingredient in Germany. Ernst Cassirer had to be prepared for that his being Jewish would have negative consequences for his carrier. The NS "Machtübernahme" in 1933 was only the peak of a ongoing brutalising of xenophobia in Germany which was to be fatal for Jews, gypsies, communists and other "deviant" people.

Early in 1933 a decree was proclaimed which launched the phrase "Recht ist was dem Führer dient". This decree was to become of decisive importance for Ernst Cassirer and his family. At the time the decree was launched my grandfather said, that if not all of Germany's lawyers did protest against this, German would be lost. "Not one single voice of protest was heard", writes my grandmother, and my grandparents decided to leave Germany immediately. A law from 7 April 1933 with the opaque name of "Wiederherstellung des Berufsamtentums" aimed at eliminating all Jews in official positions and made Cassirer's emigration necessary.

At that point of time, Ernst Cassirer had been a full professor at the University of Hamburg since 1919. 1929/30 he was its "Rektor" and in that capacity he had to participate in many official events. Ernst Cassirer did not neglect the possibility to underline the importance of the democratic constitution and he tried to show the roots of democratic thinking i German history and philosophy in order to strengthen that way of reasoning.

In the speeches that Ernst Cassirer held at these occasions, which he himself considered to be mainly political, he reasoned on a far to abstract and distanced level for his view to get any considerable effect. But in one of his rektorial speeches Cassirer claims that "Wissen ist Pflicht" and stresses the responsibilities and duties of intellectual people. This was a very obvious and clear declaration of a standing-point that can even be interpreted as an exhortation to act, more the obvious for those who knew the style of Cassirer's usual writings and lessons, in which abstraction and distance are prominent style-markers.

Cassirer was called the "Olympian" already by his fellow students in Marburg. I guess he got that nickname for his great love and knowledge of ancient Greece with its philosophy and mythology and perhaps this love was also inspired by a psychological longing for the times where there was neither Jew nor Greek. But of course his encyclopaedic knowledge of history of man and of science contributed to his great love for Greek thinking. Another part of the Olympic in Ernst Cassirer is his distance to philosophical problems: he never simplifies matters, and he always tries to illuminate the problems with the viewpoints of all philosophers that have ever uttered any opinion on the subject in question. Due to his enormous reading and almost photographical memory this treatment can make it rather hard to get a clear and concise view of Ernst Cassirer's own standpoint in a question. So when Ernst Cassirer says "Wissen ist Pflicht" this is a unusually strong and straightforwardly put point of view.

For a reader of Sartre the pointing towards man's duty seems existentialist, but as a matter of fact existentialism in its primary form of Heidegger's was actually the school in German philosophy that launched the sharpest criticism against Cassirer's interpretation of Kant. An important and well-known incident in Cassirer's philosophy as well as private life was the disputation between him and Heidegger in Davos 1929. It seems that the bourgeois and "Olympic" Cassirer had no great chance of winning a dispute against the youthful and aggressive Heidegger.

Heidegger may very well have been a more acute philosopher than Cassirer; he was more original, in any case, but the fact that he was the winner of the Davos disputation no doubt also might be explained by the spirit of the times. Heidegger was the "modern" one of the two and his existentialism of "Blut und Boden" caught the wind (and might even have steered the same wind) much more than Cassirer's universal humanism ever could. The fact that Heidegger was known as an overt anti Semit in 1929 did certainly contribute to his success in the Reich: he was the first outspoken nazi that became Rektor of a German university.

I think that one of the possible reasons for the fact that Cassirer never founded any "school" (contrary to Heidegger) is that his personality prevented him from writing in a style that evaded problems, objections or other perspectives in the history of philosophy, all of which together make his writings rather cumbersome and which also makes it impossible to summarise his theories in slogans and catchwords.

As my grandfather left Germany in 1933 I think his decision was not only based upon a rational analysis of the ominous decree "Recht ist was dem Führer dient". I think a very important ingredient was his personality. In the book that my grandmother wrote he appears to have been severely inhibited as to expressing aggression, and I've been told that whenever a quarrel came about in the family (which must have been rather often) he just left the room. This inadequacy made him to a permanent "friendly" person, who even saluted a subordinate university clerk with the same respect as any of the professors. (My Grandmother characterised him in her viennese bourgeois way as having no "Klassenbewußtsein". My personal reflections upon this are 1) that she might have had enough of it for both of them, and 2) that Ernst Cassirer might really not have made any difference between people, because he was equally little interested in them all.

So when Ernst Cassirer left Germany in 1933 I think he also left the "room" as a result of this disposition. Even later, during his Swedish period, it is curious to watch his interest in rather obscure Swedish philosophers instead of dealing with problems far more important.

The passages in Toni Cassirer's book that describe what happened in those days are extremely interesting. Immediately after the emigration, during his stay in Oxford 1934/35 as a visiting scholar, my grandfather uttered the intent to write a philosophical essay on (and against) Nazism. Toni Cassirer, though, felt it to be her responsibility to prevent him from doing that. In a very emotional part of her book my grandmother tells how vehemently she had to argue to obstruct Ernst Cassirer from writing something that could harm relatives and friends in Germany. Ernst Cassirer followed her advice and he actually never accomplished his intent. (I do not consider either Essay on Man nor Myth of the state clear and outspoken enough to fulfil that claim.)

My grandmother's very emotional defence for her acting deviates considerably from her usual style, which I suppose is due to reproaches on Ernst Cassirer for not having spoken up while there was still time to do so and perhaps even a possible result to be expected. Not one single person opened his voice against the decree of 1933, my grandmother laments, not understanding that she acted in exactly the same way as she forbade her husband to do so. There is of course one complication: they were not only German, they were Jews. Perhaps Toni Cassirer did after all not consider her to be a Jewish German but rather a Jew in Germany.Toni Cassirer writes a great deal about the difference in connection with her portrait of Cohen.

Her actions are certainly an indication in that direction: the immediate withdrawal from the scene of battle, leaving it to the "real Germans" to fight. Even if times were different in those days as to freedom of utterance and even if the situation in Germany already was difficult, there must have been opposition against Hitler also apart from the communist one. Was there not one newspaper in which the former Rektor of Hamburg's University could have written an article against what he felt was wrong without fear of reprisals? But what this incident also shows is the fact that already in 1933 terror was so dominant in nazi Germany that protests really were dangerous - I've heard that they were so also for "ordinary" Germans.

Ernst Cassirer's friendliness, that I have touched upon earlier, had an important effect in that it obviously was difficult to dislike him. Ardent academic opponents and even anti Semites felt an unwilling admiration and perhaps even a kind of affection for him, and many of his students and listeners became his friends. The most important one of these friends was to be the professor of philosophy at Göteborgs Högskola, Malte Jacobson, who became governor (landshövding) of Göteborgs och Bohus län. He had been listening in on some of Ernst Cassirer's lectures in Germany and he mediated an invitation for a personal professorship for five years in Göteborg. My grandfather accepted the invitation with great pleasure, something that is said to have surprised the faculty in Göteborg: Cassirer was a highly estimated academic and Göteborgs Högskola had only a couple of hundred students. But Cassirer never felt at home in Oxford, because among other things that he was obliged to lecture in English. In Sweden he could speak German since more or less all educated people had learned German as their first language in school, and the structure of the university and of university teaching was more or less the same as he was used to from Germany. So he felt very much at ease in Sweden and he and my grandmother were very proud to become Swedish citizens in 1935, which they both were until their dead (which later prevented Ernst Cassirer from getting his due pension from Germany).

In the memoirs of my grandmother Sweden is pictured more or less like a paradise: Sweden was clean, there was (already at that time) high living standards with no beggars in the streets, and nor was there any anti Semitism. At least, that was what Toni Cassirer believed. She was wrong in that assumption, and even if anti Semitism in Sweden was quite different from anti Semitism in Germany, the situation for refugees who wanted an asylum in Sweden was as repelling in 1935 as it actually is again today.

In this Swedish paradise there also was the wife of the saving angel Malte Jacobsson, Emma. Since she had risen in a Jewish home in Vienna, very much the same as my grandmother's, there was a rapid and deep understanding between the two of them. Nobody is portrayed with the same uninhibited warmth and devotion as Emma Jacobsson, a learned and artistic person who made one at the same time unique social and aesthetic achievement with her knitting industry that provided wives of unemployed workers in Bohuslän with a beautiful and nourishing occupation.

The anti nazi position of most of the professors at Göteborgs Högskola and in Göteborg in general, a standing point for which Torgny Segerstedt was the incarnation, of course contributed to that Ernst and Toni Cassirer felt so well in Göteborg. (Segerstedt was the chief editor of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, known for its clearsighted attitudes towards nazi Germany. He wrote a special chapter in the history of Göteborg during WW II.)

The first book that Cassirer published in Sweden was Determinismus und Indeterminismus. Über das Kausalproblem in der modernen Fysik. which he had written in England. It happened at that time that my grandmother fell ill and my grandfather for once was forced to go into the kitchen, a place I think he was not very familiar with. He made some tea, which endeavour he accomplished. But as he was to warm the milk he put the bottle directly on the stove with a consequence that he theoretically should have been able to foresee with regard to his newly published book! My grandmother was so happy for that incident that she recovered immediately.

As soon as Ernst Cassirer arrived in Sweden he begun to learn the language and read Swedish philosophers. Somewhat surprising he fished out a romantic poet and philosopher from his oblivion and wrote a book on him: Thorilds Stellung in der Geistesgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts. He also became involved in the criticism of the radical rationalism of the domineering philosophical school of Axel Hägerström in Uppsala, which discarded assertions about practical and moral knowledge as superstition. Sweden was the right place to return to his early interest in Renée Descartes and he investigated Descarte's part in the conversion of queen Christina to Catholicism (Drottning Christina och Descartes.).

The appointment of Ernst Cassirer in Göteborg ended in 1941. Another angel of the Jacobsson family emerged: Malte and Emma's daughter Ingrid had noticed an advertisement of a cargo ship with eight beds for passengers from Göteborg to New York. Since Ernst Cassirer had accepted an invitation to Yale University and since the political climate had become highly unhealthy in Sweden after the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, my grandparents decided somewhat reluctantly to leave Sweden in May 1941.

In the USA Ernst Cassirer wrote his two last and most popular books, An essay on man and The myth of the state. His state of health had deteriorated under the pressure of the political events and my grandmother writes that she was in constant fear when her husband did not return on scheduled time which happened now and then when Cassirer became totally absorbed by some idea he wanted to pursue in a library.

On the 12th of April 1945 the radio reported that Franklin Roosevelt died calmly in his sleep. "If you promise me to die in the same way", my grandmother said to Ernst Cassirer, "I grant you to die tomorrow". As the obedient husband that he was, he did so. He had a heart attack after his lecture the 13th April and dropped down dead on the street outside of Columbia University, where he held an appointment after Yale.

It is obviously of great use in some times to be an outstanding researcher and also in certain circumstances to have one such as a grandfather. As I said by way of introduction, I had not been standing here had it not been for him. But in evil times being outstanding does not suffice. You also have to be helped by people of principle. To those who acted righteously in the 30ies and to those who do it today, in times that are as evil as they were then, and now as the world needs as many persons who can separate good from evil and say so and act accordingly, my grandfather from his Olympic heaven sends through me his warm and sincere thanks!
Last Modified 18 Nov 2010Created 24 Jul 2023 by Jim Falk